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Even when scalawags shuffle airport letters, it's hard to miss the spot on the empty Nevada desert where the Burning Man arts festival happens. (Chad Slattery)

Magic Airport

Watch the Burning Man revelers pull an airport out of the desert...then make it disappear.

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Before 9 a.m. in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert the temperature is already 92 degrees, and Tom Fabrizio, a 747 pilot shouldering a tank of Turf Trax Blue, is at work. He slowly sprays the water-soluble colorant to outline a rectangle about 1,800 feet long by 600 feet wide on the ancient lakebed’s cracked surface.

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“I’m making the tie-down area,” he says. “With any luck this’ll all be gone in three weeks.”
Fabrizio is part of a small crew that brings into being Black Rock City Airport, born every August on this chunk of fractured desert floor 90 miles north of Reno. The airport is active for two weeks—the Federal Aviation Administration periodically observes its annual, temporary use—and then, as a condition of its existence, is erased.

BRC, its informal designator, is aviation’s wormhole into the Burning Man arts festival, which started in 1986, when two friends burned a sculpture in a bonfire on a San Francisco beach and attracted a crowd. The bonfire has grown into an annual weeklong celebration, and the crowd has grown to 40,000.

Burning Man is performance art on an unimaginable scale, ritualistic and cinematic, especially if first viewed from a distance through desert heat waves. Slowly, Black Rock City materializes: massive sculptures, towering flames, mutated vehicles, and costumed revelers wandering across five miles of tents and art installations, arrayed in a two-thirds circle. The soundtrack is 24/7 techno rave. The premise is radical self-expression. And the trick is to make it all vanish when the party ends on Labor Day, achieved mainly by burning everything flammable the night before. Participants bring all they need for the week, from food to tents to bikes, because nothing is available in the desert except portable toilets.

Burning Man migrated to Black Rock in 1990, and pilots immediately began flying in, drawn to the stretch of hard clay surface, known as playa, scrubbed smooth each spring by wind and rain. “We have a 400-square-mile airport here,” observes Roger Ryan, owner of a wildly painted 1956 Piper Apache and known at the airport as “DragonFly!”
The lakebed’s 27-mile length is the only break that aviators get. It sits nearly 4,000 feet above sea level; when triple-digit temperatures heat the thin air, lift diminishes as density altitude—the effective operating altitude, taking temperature and air pressure into account—increases. The featureless desert floor reduces pilots’ depth perception during landings. Winds constantly batter the aircraft, injecting fine alkali dust into every unprotected vent and inlet.

Capricious playa weather further complicates flying. Past Burning Man events have experienced hail, 70-mph winds, drenching rain, 120-degree heat, and zero-visibility dust-devil curtains blowing across the runway. “Storms are sudden and violent,” warns one aviation Web site, “and hospitals are far away.”

Despite the difficulties—or because of them—123 aircraft flew into Burning Man last year. Two stood out: a customized Antonov An-2 (“Beats an Airstream,” quipped owner Douglas Fulton), and the first private jet to ever land at the festival. The Cessna 525 CitationJet’s arrival set off fierce speculation about damage to the engine cores as they ingested the pervasive dust. Owner Don Morris shrugged off concerns: “It’s a machine. What are you going to do? You can park it forever if you don’t want it to wear out.” (Eight months later, he reported that the jet was doing fine.)

In aviation, a conservative enterprise, iconoclasts like Morris are the exception; at Burning Man, they are the rule. Ramona Cox, a 1,800-hour pilot, packs her Cessna T206 with a six-person tent to hold her costumes. “I bring a Turbo Stationair,” she says. “It’s perfect. I can have 80 gallons full fuel and still haul a thousand pounds. That’s a lot of costumes.” Asked if the pilots here are different, she responds, “They’re more adventurous, fun-loving, and non-judgmental. They’re not afraid of landing off an airstrip, or putting their airplanes into the elements.” Roger Ryan is more concise: “Coming here is about upping the ante if you’re a pilot. It’s a harsh environment.”

And a playful one. “Airports are usually very serious, with rules and searches and security,” says volunteer Heidi Karl, dressed in a bright red tutu, “but here you can be silly and have fun.” Incoming pilots and passengers are asked leeringly if they’d prefer to be patted down by a male or a female. Volunteer Bettina Kahlert laughs, “It’s the only airport left where you can make jokes about bombs.”

Or show up naked. Most of the 150 volunteers who staff the airport are dressed, and their self-expression often takes the form of fishnet body stockings, thongs, and imaginative interpretations of airline uniforms. The only taboo: feather boas and sequins, banned by the federal Bureau of Land Management for environmental reasons.

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